There is a picture circulating on the social media, of a man, standing by the charred remains of what was clearly his hut, his face in his hands, obviously distraught.
This picture, it is said, was taken in Mazowe, when villagers were evicted from what has been variously described as their homes (by them), a farm to make way for the First Lady (by the media and MDC supporters) or a wildlife reserve (by those defending the evictions).
These contestations are relevant and they are also not: the fact is that people have once again been evicted from land they occupied.
At times like these, one cannot but sit and reflect on what we are doing as a nation. And that very activity gives you pause to ask: are we a nation? What makes us one? Is there one strand that brings us together, one great binding characteristic or objective that makes us into who we are besides the teapot shaped landmass we call home?
It cannot be a shared history because the people currently inhabiting the land that is geographically represented as ‘Zimbabwe’ include Ndebeles who came to the plateau from a proud tradition of military prowess under Mzilikazi and settled in the South West; promptly becoming lords of all and subservient to none, the Lemba who either came from Venda under Mpande or from Sena in Yemen; descendants of a Semitic culture that claims an inheritance from Abraham and dominion over all the earth, the Chikunda people who may or may not be descendants of freed/former slaves from the Indian ocean who moved inland to get as far away from the Portuguese as possible, the Rozvi who claim to be the original inhabitants of the plateau but whose infamy was confirmed by those primary schools tales about their various attempts to dig up mountains and roll them to their chief for his seat, and the Ndau who may, or may not be Shangaan and part of another Zulu offshoot led to these parts by Soshangane; another of Shaka’s mighty men.
Include in these the white people (yes, there are still those), born in Zimbabwe and knowing no other home but here, the Tonga in the Zambezi Valley; largely ignored by government except when their votes are required every five years or so, and others I cannot mention without being sidetracked, and you cannot really speak of any shared history. So, what is it that makes us a nation?
It cannot be a shared language, because we do not speak the same language. We all struggle to get at least a C in O’Level English so that we might have a common language, using a second language as the official language because we cannot see the irony of saying ‘Zimbabwe will never be a colony again’ in the coloniser’s language because that phrase cannot translate into vernacular.
Much as attempts have been made to create a ‘standard Shona’, it still remains as funny to a person from Marondera to hear someone from Mberengwa say ‘gwana gwenyu ugwu gwune gunyengu rakaita kuti nyimo dzifukwe’ as it is impossible for the white person in Harare to understand what that even begins to mean.
Try teaching a child in Mwenezi that old saying ‘mapudzi anowira vasina hari’ without first pointing out the basic fact that mapudzi means manhanga and you are likely to get them as confused as we all seemed to get in Form 4 maths all those years ago when questions, set by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate contained such gems like ‘a cricket player bowls 5 overs in 4 minutes, calculate the amount of time between each ball’ and you sat there sweating because you were thinking ‘what is a cricket player, munhu anotamba nemagurwe? and what is an over, does it mean throwingmagurwe over your head?’
I suppose that a possible answer would be to say that because we all came from different parts, because we all speak different languages, have different histories, then we must have started to be one nation when our histories converged and we started living together, interwoven by place and time converging but all coming from different strands.
Looking at it this way, what makes Zimbabwe a nation starts to be clear: the amalgamated experiences and lives of disparate groups of people that happened to live on the same piece of land between our two great rivers to the north and south, the mountains to the east and the hostile environs of the west. You can even point to a time when this must have happened, can you not?
So, this amalgam of disparate and different peoples, put together over time but cemented when the white people came in 1890 and went about drawing maps, finds itself ‘a nation’. Logical, but this history does not fit well with the present trajectory of our national narrative, and it is obvious to see why.
Looking at our history like this legitimates the white people as true possessors of the promise and shared heritage of ‘our land’. It makes their coming in 1890 the starting point, the date when we were organised into a nation, and legitimates them in ways that make their dispossession in 1999 seem, well, wrong.
But facts are stubborn. They are as stubborn when you say that the elections in 2013 were free and fair as they are when you say that the no right thinking Zimbabwean can ever be proud of what happened in 2008. Facts are as stubborn when you say that our economy is smaller now than it was in 1980, as they are when you say that once sanctions were lifted, there is no excuse for failure.
But, we digress. So we are a nation. But what does that mean? Who are we as a people, and what are we doing as a people.
More to the point, what on earth are we doing to one another? How did we, the people that claim to love ‘our land’, get to the point where we burn down the meagre possessions of one of ‘our own’ so that he could move off of….. whose land again?
Who do you need to be before you qualify as part of the ‘our’ in the phrase ‘our land’? Clearly white people need not apply, since we have so institutionalised racism that when we say ‘our people’, ‘our women’ (is there any such?), ‘our land’, we all collectively know that we do not include them.
So that if we say ‘our women bring us pride’ we know that we are talking about Bev and that one from Big Brother and do not include the beautiful Danielle Connolly or Kirtsy Coventry, unless we actually say their names, that ‘our people’ excludes Ian Douglas Smith despite the fact that he was born in Shurugwi and never ever considered any place other than his beloved Rhodesia (which is just Zimbabwe by another name) as home.
We have, as a nation, developed this coded way of speaking, pretty much seemingly innocuous, when in fact it reeks of racist perfidy and hatred. Even my use of the word ‘we’ is code, black people only qualify. When did we become this racist? When did we go so far off course that we are this grubby? Yet we are the first to cry wolf when Europeans say or do anything that seems even remotely suggestive of racism.
A landless person living in Harare with nary an intention to ever touch a hoe or even be within 100 metres of a plough waxes lyrical about ‘our land’, and immediately thinks in his mind that this means ‘not belonging to whites’. Our women (good luck with that), our people (really?) and our land (indeed!) become common parlance, and none bats an eyelid at the racial invective hidden in the coded messages we are communicating.
But back to that picture. This is what happens when you institutionalise racism. In 1999, we as ‘a people’ set upon a small minority of people in our country that, by some collective agreement on ‘our part’, did not qualify as part of the collective, and brutalised them without sanction, dispossessing people of their livelihoods because we had been annoyed by some misguided British Minister with zero knowledge about Zimbabwe.
At no point did we (clearly ‘we’ does not include the white people) stop to think that there was a chance, however remote, that if we introduced jambanja as a method of property exchange, then in future, others might come to think that it was par for the course.
So when one of us, like the man in that picture, gets his home burnt to the ground, with crops in the field, at Christmas, and he buries his face in his hands in tears, you have to wonder if this could have happened had we followed a more orderly way to get ‘our land’ back in 1999. And by the way, who died and said he is not part of the ‘our’?
Painful fact, but probably true: some white people from Zimbabwe might be looking at the same picture and thinking: chickens coming home to roost. But that would be false comfort: two wrongs do not make a right.
But it is telling though. We are a people that has become so polarised, so angry at each other that we will revel in the undoing of another. The burning of huts in Mazowe incites MDC supporters to rejoice that those who supported a disorganised land reform process are finding out the hard way that it was never about ‘we the people’ but about those in positions of privilege.
The personal misfortunes of Morgan Tsvangirai give those opposed to him (including, I confess, myself) reason to guffaw at his hapless attempts to keep personal and public lives intact, while everyday living in what must surely be great fear for the safety of his person and that of his loved ones.
His courage is ignored, the various times he has emerged with blood dripping down his face dismissed as probably self-inflicted, or just forgotten as part of an inconvenient truth that should not be faced.
There is no quarter given, everything is black and white, except when it is isn’t. Then it is just unmitigated greed, scorching everything and all in its path, with no regard to time or propriety. The justifications you get are not even well thought out: demolishing people’s homes after they have planted their crops and telling them to go back to where they came from is just pure evil, and suggesting that you are doing it because the place is a World Heritage Sanctuary is just plain insulting.
And by the way, when did we start caring about such Western concepts as Western declared Heritage Sites at the expense of ‘our people’ on ‘our land’? You cannot pick and choose which Western concepts to ignore and which to cherish, and even if you did, there is something slightly pathetic in the suggestion that it is okay to burn people’s homes so that some baboons can have places to roam.
That boy, Caston Matewu, who quickly looked up the list of such sites and failed to find the Mazowe one listed probably deserves some kind of award, but you will not hear that from me: I am not on his side of the fence.
He is a busybody with nothing better to do, a product of a sycophantic coterie around Tsvangirai which seeks to undo the gains of our independence in furtherance of his and Tsvangirai’s job as a running dog of imperialism, is what my side will say. Stuff and nonsense!
But we have seen this movie before, and that is the tragedy. We invaded fields and told the people that had planted crops or were caring for their livestock to leave and go back to where they came from, and realised that it works.
We allowed ourselves to collectively believe that because we could identify a place on the map where they purportedly came from, we were not really doing anything wrong, after all they could just rustle up their red British passports and go back home. That that very belief was as misguided as it was racist did not feature.
But when we ask the man with his face in his hands to go back to where he came from, where, pray tell, is that? What colour passport do we expect him to rustle up this time?
I will say this though: I grew up in Shurugwi, and I know people that lived on the Smith farm. The man was most likely a racist, but at some point, you have to start wondering: if we can do this to ‘our own’, exactly how different are we from Ian Smith? And while you ponder that, ask yourself this: is that geographical entity called Zimbabwe better off now than it was when it was called Rhodesia?
Do not bother answering, because the tragedy is this: once questions like that become valid, people need to stop and ask themselves: what on earth are we doing?